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The Straight Dope 

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Everywhere you go you hear people say, "If you don't like the weather here, just wait ten minutes and it'll change." As though where they live is the only place with variable weather. But who really has the right to say this? I leave it to you to decide what constitutes variability, but I'd suggest a frequency of noticeable day-to-day changes, i.e., sunny-rainy, rainy-sunny, and significant temperature difference. --Doug Stewart, Dallas

Oh, pish-tush, Dougie. If we start going with this sunny-rainy stuff, everybody will think they qualify. Even the British, for God's sake, who complain about the violence of nature when the temperature climbs into the 80s. The Brits, in fact, sometimes say of their weather that it's like having "four seasons in a day." Does this mean they have blizzards alternating with 100-degree heat waves? Not at all. It means sometimes it's stormy and then the sun comes out, a characteristic of many maritime climates. Whoopie.

For the true connoisseur of weather, what you want is weather with drama, weather with a sense of spectacle--kick-ass weather, in other words. For this purpose, only the continental American variety will do. Mark Twain, to whom the wait-ten-minutes quote is (possibly erroneously) attributed, supposedly was referring to the climate of New England. But for my money the champ has to be the northern Great Plains.

The Great Plains have no north-south mountain ranges to impede the movement of tropical warm fronts and Canadian cold fronts. Nor do they have the large bodies of water that temper coastal climates. The result is some of the wildest weather on earth, e.g., tornadoes, which are spawned by the shock of colliding warm and cold fronts.

But the real hallmark is the startling swings of temperature. On January 12, 1911, the temperature in Rapid City, South Dakota, fell from 49 degrees Fahrenheit at 6 AM to 13 below zero at 8 AM, a drop of 62 degrees in two hours. In November that year the temperature in Kansas City, Missouri, dropped from 76 degrees at 10:30 AM to 10 degrees at midnight and 7 degrees the next morning.

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the greatest short-term temperature variation on record occurred on January 23-24, 1916, in Browning, Montana, where the mercury dropped 100 degrees in 24 hours, from plus 44 to minus 56. Equally bizarre was a rise of 49 degrees in two minutes in Spearfish, South Dakota--from minus 4 at 7:30 AM to plus 45 at 7:32 AM, on January 22, 1943. I believe this last one was caused by a chinook, a westerly wind blowing out of the mountains that warms up dramatically on the way downhill due to air compression.

I do have to mention that the greatest annual temperature changes probably occur in Siberia. The historical highs and lows in Verkhoyansk are 98 above zero and 94 below, a range of 192 degrees, which even South Dakotans would have to consider pretty bracing. Midwesterners contemplating a diatribe on the climate, therefore, should first check to see if any Verkhoyanskites are in the room. But no one else is even in the running.

This has bugged me all my life: why do wet things look darker than dry things? --Kathleen Hunt, Brookline, Massachusetts

We'll take this in stages, Kathleen. Stop me when the pain gets too intense. (1) Talk-Show-on-Commercial-Radio version: Because when something is wet, light bounces around inside it more before being reflected back to the eye. The more the light bounces, the more of it gets absorbed, the less reaches the eye, and the darker the object appears. This is fine for most purposes, but sometimes I have to escalate to (2) the Talk-Show-on-PBS version, which goes on to add that the reason the light bounces more is that the moisture increases the average scattering angle of the light particles. When the photons strike the surface of the wet material most of them bounce forward and hence deeper into the stuff rather than backward toward the eye.

At this point I'm sometimes tempted to launch into (3) the PhD-thesis version, which comes complete with wavelengths, angstroms, and electron shells, but invariably the host's eyes start to glaze over and I find myself swiftly segueing into the latest on Rocky and Bullwinkle. Being the world's smartest human is all very well, but even I know when to quit.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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